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Ramp agent part of crew loading luggage, restocking plane (photos)

Saturday, November 17, 2012
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Southwest Airlines ramp manager Sean Bellinger of Albany, places luggage on a conveyor belt being loaded onto a 737 at Albany International Airport Thursday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber
Southwest Airlines ramp manager Sean Bellinger of Albany, places luggage on a conveyor belt being loaded onto a 737 at Albany International Airport Thursday.

— Sean Bellinger has attitude about altitude.

It’s a good feeling, from someone who sees people coming and going all the time.

At 5:04 p.m. on Thursday, Bellinger watched the latest group depart. They were sitting inside a Southwest Airlines 737 jet that slowly backed away from the Southwest terminal at Albany International Airport in Colonie. Seconds later, the jet stormed down the runway and flew north into the evening sky.

Bellinger had just helped unload and load luggage. He and a five-person crew had restocked the plane with ice and snacks and made sure the blue and red airliner was ready for its trip to Chicago. As a ramp agent for Southwest, Bellinger is part of the ground force that keeps pilots and passengers in the air.

“A lot of it is behind-the-scenes work,” said Bellinger, 34, a friendly man with red hair who graduated from Lake George High School in 1996. He now lives in Albany and works on airport pavement from early afternoon into late evening.

“It’s a fun job,” said Bellinger, who wore an orange and yellow safety vest over a royal blue Southwest Airlines vest and a lightweight black coat. Black slacks and brown work boots were also part of his outfit; so was a communications radio microphone slung over his left shoulder.

Kids on jet planes, Bellinger believes, always remember the thrill of takeoffs and landings. They also remember seeing guys on the ground driving support trucks.

“It’s like you’re living something you experienced as a kid,” Bellinger said of his work. “It’s physical work, you’re on your feet. But it’s rewarding and can be challenging.”

At 5:15, Bellinger and his crew waited for the next company jet. Flight 668, registered plane N654SW, was due from Fort Lauderdale and, after a brief stop in Albany, would continue on to Baltimore.

Bellinger said Southwest is easy to spot in the sky — the airliners all have red beacon lights that blink on the top and bottom of the fuselage.

A minute later, the muscular, twin-engined guest from Southwest arrived. The familiar accordion-style exit passage was attached to the side of the plane. As some people moved out, Bellinger and his friends made their moves on the 32-degree autumn night.

Bellinger wheeled a 10-step steel stairway to the plane’s rear entrance. His principal duty for Flight 668 was to empty trash collected during the trip from Fort Lauderdale, ditch melting ice supplies and replenish coolers with fresh cubes. Bags were unloaded from the bottom of the plane.

At 5:24, Bellinger drove a small cart-style truck loaded with 50 new bags and suitcases. He began loading the luggage onto a conveyor belt that brought the pieces to the cargo hold.

“I’m just making sure they’re all here,” Bellinger said. “Counting each one.”

“Want a hand?” asked Zach McDaniel, another member of the ramp crew, as he helped Bellinger with the job.

Another company refuels the planes. Once the bags were loaded, Bellinger and his crew closed cargo holds and inspected the grounds. If something like a zipper from a travel bag comes loose and lands near an engine, Bellinger said, it could be scooped into the machinery and damage one of the metal blades. They don’t want that to happen, so eyes are always on the ground.

At 5:35, the team waited. Some passengers were still being seated. A power line had been placed into a front compartment near the nose, so the plane used airport power — and not jet fuel — while ticking closer to a 5:50 departure.

Bellinger said working in rainy weather is the biggest annoyance. “Snow is no problem,” he said. “It’s fun, driving these trucks around in the snow. The weather doesn’t dampen the mood here, that’s for certain.”

Pilots know they have good support at Southwest.

“They’re very cool,” Bellinger said. “They appreciate your hard work, they know you have a short amount of time to get things done.”

At 5:52, Bellinger and another crew member received information that the plane’s interior luggage racks were too crowded. Three large bags were removed, and brought to the front cargo hold on the bottom of the plane.

“Not going to fit in the overhead bins,” Bellinger said.

The plane remained on the pavement. There was a flow-control problem in Baltimore, which meant controllers were dealing with heavy sky traffic. The pilots would have to wait until the situation improved.

Shortly after 6, they received the word. The power cable was removed and engines roared into high volume. Bellinger grabbed two battery-operated red flare lights and walked along wing on the pilot’s right. Another crewman did the same on the left.

The airliner rolled backward, with help from a Southwest “push back,” a small truck that helps roll airplanes into position. Once the plane was about 50 yards from the terminal, Bellinger held one flare high with his right hand and kept his left hand flare at waist level.

He walked to the nose of the airplane and disconnected a yellow cord that gave pilots a communication line to the crew during their time on the ground. He tightly closed the connection compartment door.

Flight 668 taxied south and returned a few minutes later — rushing north and ascending into the air. Bellinger and his crew had a little time to themselves — the next flight would arrive at 8 p.m.

 
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